A week before Russia goes to the polls in presidential elections, a bizarre drama is playing out in a sleepy provincial town that points to growing discontent among Russians outside Moscow.
Thirteen people, many of them former local councillors, have gone on hunger strike in Lermontov, a town of 22,000 in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.
They say they were barred from standing in elections by corrupt regional powers, and have joined the new trend for public protest in Russia, vowing not to eat until they are put back on the ballot paper. Elections to Lermontov's 15-person council are due to take place next Sunday, the same day as presidential elections where Vladimir Putin is likely to win a return to the Kremlin.
The hunger-strikers, who are now entering their fifth day of refusing food, are sleeping on mattresses in a government building they have occupied in central Lermontov. A string of well-wishers brings them water and news from the town, while flags of their various political parties hang from the windows.
"All we are saying is let us take part in the elections," said Valery Belousov, 47, an independent councillor. "If we don't get in then fine, but at least let people decide. Instead, we have a farce where just the approved candidate is allowed to stand, with one fake no-hoper put up as competition to ensure that the elections are valid."
On the whole, the strikers' anger does not reach Mr Putin, who has based much of his campaign on criticising regional leaders and playing the "good Tsar, bad nobles" card. Many of the striking deputies say they will vote for Mr Putin, and are quick to insist their protest is not linked with the Moscow opposition protests that have called for "Russia without Putin", though they admit that they seized on a new sense of empowerment.
"Of course, people in Lermontov are a long way from Putin, and the feelings are on much more of a local level," said Ilya Ponomaryov, an MP who visited earlier in the week. "But in essence, it's the same thing that got people on the streets in Moscow – people want to be given the right to choose how they live."
What is happening in Lermontov illustrates the complexity of the pre-election situation across Russia. In hundreds of towns across the country, people are frustrated with local authorities and furious with corruption. But the majority of people still see this as a violation of Mr Putin's system rather than an integral part of it. This was evidenced yesterday by a new poll that suggests Mr Putin will win the election comfortably. The respected Levada Centre said 66 per cent of Russians who said they planned to vote at all would back the Prime Minister's return to the Kremlin, meaning that Mr Putin is likely to get the 50 per cent he needs to avoid a run-off ballot with few problems.
For now, while discontent with Mr Putin grows in big cities, in the regions he is still seen as the guarantor of stability. Few people speak of him with gushing praise, but most say they feel that voting for other candidates would be "dangerous" and promote instability, a theme that Mr Putin's own campaign has stressed repeatedly.
The back-story to the Lermontov hunger strike is convoluted and steeped in the vagaries of Russian local politics, but essentially revolves around the fact that the town council elected in late 2010 was dissolved after six of its 15 members voluntarily resigned.
This meant that new elections automatically had to be held, which were scheduled for next Sunday. The old councillors have all been barred from standing in them, they say on spurious grounds. The most common reason has been court decisions that the 29 signatures each candidate required for nomination were faked. "We've had real people going to the court and willing to testify they were indeed the signatories, and the court dismissing their testimony in favour of some 'hand-writing specialist' who insisted the signatures were fake," Mr Belousov said.
The strikers claim that the whole scheme has been cooked up by authorities in the regional capital, Stavropol, who want to replace them with their own corrupt emissaries. The strikers come from across the political spectrum, from Communists to nationalists and independent candidates, and even a grizzled former army lieutenant from Mr Putin's United Russia party. All of them say they supported the previous policies of the council, and all have been punished by being kicked off the list for upcoming elections. "These councillors did such a lot for the town, and I completely support their hunger strike," said Lyudmila, a matriarch sporting an enormous fur hat who offered support. Others were more cynical. "They're all as bad as each other," grumbled 61-year-old Sergei Golovanov. "It's one group of criminals against each other, they're just fighting to divide up the cash, while the people get nothing."
While there is certainly an element of cynicism in Lermontov about all politicians, it has to be said that the majority of those on hunger strike do not look like they have been using their positions to cream off pots of cash. Take 75-year-old Viktor Kapustin, a Communist councillor for the past 15 years. Dressed in a scruffy Adidas tracksuit, his grey hair slicked back, he proudly talks of his 50 years as a member of the Soviet and then Russian Communist parties. A former uranium miner, he says he was offered money to give up his post, but declined. "Honour and dignity is dearer to me than any money or privileges," he claimed. He said his wife was worried about him hunger striking at his age.
Protests in Lermontov are focused on modest, local aims. As the hunger strikers prepared for a fifth night in the occupied building, they insisted they were prepared to continue their protest until they were allowed back onto the ballot. "I can't stand this not eating thing, I've lost three kilograms already and I am just dying to eat a nice meat cutlet," Mr Belousov admitted. "But what else can we do? It's the only way we can get people to listen to us."
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